We smelled smoke and, out the window, embers rose in the night.
We got out of bed and pulled the red alarm box in the hallway and went outside.
From across the street, we watched fire destroy our apartment building. The woman who lived down the hall from us wore a nightgown and fanned herself with a magazine and shook her head. We found a motel nearby, mostly used by military girlfriends and wives. Then we walked to the beach.
This was Oxnard, a coastal city in Southern California near Port Hueneme and in a severe drought. Dry sugar beet farms stretched out from two military bases and the Kavli Foundation that supports the advancement of science.
Jesse’s the only man who can get me in the water. The first night, six months ago, there was tequila, but that’s not why I swam. Tonight at the beach, I tell him what my friend said about asteroids, and he laughs because he’s grateful. We don’t choose to have such terrible luck.
Here’s a memory: When I was a girl, my father renovated condemned homes, and then he’d sell them. The homes were on acres of Nevada land. Driving to the small houses that rose from hills was like uncovering a secret. I could never see the houses from the highway, and in them, plaster walls and ceilings flaked away. Deer droppings scattered the floor around abandoned mattresses.
This is how it feels to come home to Jesse. I’ve found him. I didn’t expect him, but here he is, a thing that can’t be destroyed.
Before it burned we had come to love our one-room apartment. It had been shaped like a domino. There are signs of arson. V patterns on the walls, rags. They say a child started the fire, a boy who lived in our building. He would fly a motorized plane in the parking lot out back.
I work as a baggage handler at LAX. I met Jesse on the crew. Once, I wanted to go into ground-based observational astronomy research. I’m an applied physics dropout. It’s mostly luggage, but I’m trained on how to move cats and dogs and baby chicks destined for farms. We load animals at night, when it’s cool. During hunting season, people sneak their kill into suitcases, and we need to call the biohazard crew when the plane’s floor pools with deer blood. I didn’t know this at first and once spent ten minutes wiping the outside of a suitcase clean. We move USPS and the dead. People don’t die where they’re supposed to die, and we move them home in a special part of the hold.
My best friend, the scientist, told me that there isn’t anything we can do, any of us, to stop an asteroid. It’s happened before, near Lake Chebarkul, in Russia. All it takes is a collision. We were in an onion field. I was his student at the state school then. We had the big telescope out. We were gathered in the field around his telescope, and he was showing aspirant nurses and accountants the mysteries of the night sky. The topic shifted to the warming earth, choices people make.
The scientist smiled with calm certainty. “Humans will be destroyed by an asteroid,” he said. “Before we destroy ourselves.”
“We can do it better,” I said.
“We don’t need to worry.”
I wonder where he puts his eyes and why, and what he sees when he looks at, say, me.
Before I quit school, I was a sucker for galaxies rotating at unexplained speed. Invisible particles pull on the Andromeda galaxy and cause the rotation to speed up. The particles are hard to search for, they can’t be seen directly. Instead, they’re seen by what they displace.
Things that surprise me now: when I visit my husband’s marker at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and there is some indication that someone else was there (a sun-bleached Coors can, a motorcycle magazine); when I go back to campus and I see someone who recognizes me and remembers my name; when Jesse makes me come and I don’t feel ashamed for an hour or two after.
When I was a girl, I drowned and lost consciousness and then I came back. I was jumping off a high bridge into a river beside my home. The boy I wanted to impress was impressed, and for a while, he was mostly mine. My hearing isn’t good now in one ear. It helps on the tarmac.
I drive constantly from Oxnard to the airport. I drive my husband’s Grand Prix long hours, making wide circles.
My husband died in an airplane during his second tour. I got the job on the ramp to be close to the last thing that held him, which wasn’t me. When I watch a plane land now, it isn’t true to say I pretend he’s on it, but I remember when he left on one, and in this way, what has happened to me becomes, briefly, more than a memory. NASA can search the sky for one hundred years to gauge if an asteroid will come, but they can’t say how it will feel from the ground—if it will feel like burning, or drowning, or relief.
But I know why planets orbit—because it feels good to be pulled toward another life, to circle it.
I’m having breakfast with the scientist today. At the diner, he asks me how I am. I tell him I’m okay. This is the time of year. He nods at his eggs, wet with Tabasco. He’s the only person here who knew me when I was the woman in my memory.
Today, he tells me he’s moving to Norway, to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
“Don’t go,” I say.
“I asked you to marry me,” he says, quietly.
“What are you asking me for now?” There’s an edge in my voice. I don’t mean the accusation or anger.
“I’m telling you about an event that will happen in the near future. I’m not asking, I’m telling.”
He takes a rock out of his pocket. He places the rock’s flat gray surface in my hand. The metal flints, and one side is smooth from where it was cut and examined in the Russian lab. “It’s ten percent metal,” he says.
“It traveled a long way to be here.”
I don’t say: like us. I don’t say I love you or Stay. I hold the rock. I imagine it in orbit and then traveling all this way, shrinking and growing hot as it moves.
“Please keep it,” he says. “It’s for you.”
If it were possible for love to make anything then none of this would matter. The scientist and me, we have always found first grief, and through grief, this.
It’s Christmas Eve. I’m working LAX. Me and the guys, we’ve got a little party going on. Jesse got a Christmas tree, and it’s decorated with bras and panties. People pack suitcases so tight that when we throw them on the conveyor up to the plane they pop open. People think we rifle through their shit, but we’re on such a tight schedule to load every plane that we don’t have time. It’s a ridiculous accusation to throw at any of us. So I don’t know where the bras came from, but I know Jesse’s been saving them so he can have his tree. And he’s happy, smiling at the colorful lights twinkling beneath satin and lace. He smiles on the tree like he’s looking at a real woman.
Out on the tarmac, a strobe light searches the clouds. Higher still, I think I’m looking at an orange star, a planet, until it drops down for LAX. At night, out here, I can see my breath. When I’m alone and I see I’m breathing, I feel my husband’s life running in me.
I think about the child arsonist. Tinderbox. That’s what the neighbor in her nightgown said as she watched the fire. That the apartment building was going up like a tinderbox.
Where would my husband be tonight? If it had been me in the plane and not him?
The truth is, I don’t know what to fear. The scientist watches the internet footage of the asteroid that crashed near Lake Chebarkul in Russia. He searches the sky for danger. He knows all that is required is for one asteroid in a belt around the sun orbiting for billions of years to collide with another asteroid, and to shatter, and for that piece of sky to be pulled down.
“I want to go skydiving,” I tell Jesse, driving home from the airport.
“I’ll go with you,” he says.
“You’d hate watching me fall from the sky strapped to another man.”
“I’ll jump before you.”
Some nights we go to Ralph’s, we come home and cook and act married. Some nights, we scale the hills. Jesse found this road in Malibu that leads nowhere, high above everywhere else. When it fogs, the city looks like a bowl of melted ice cream. We turn the radio on and roll down all the windows, and maybe I get out of the car and dance. I dance and Jesse watches me. I dance so he’ll watch me. He leans against the hood, and the sky is so big. There will be a sudden white light, and we’ll wonder if it’s a plane or something else exploding.
Kathryn Savage‘s writing has appeared in The Guardian, Poets & Writers, and The Best Small Fictions of 2015 among others. Her work has been supported by fellowships and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Minnesota State Arts Board, Millay Colony, Ucross Foundation, and Vermont Studio Center.